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Eric Robertson Dodds-‘Seeing A Dream’ In Homeric Poetry

‘Penelope’s dream’. Illustration from ‘Stories from Homer’ by Alfred Church (London, 1878), from John Flaxman (1755-1826) design.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Eric Robertson Dodds’ seminal ‘The Greeks and the Irrational’, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951 (Sather Classical Lectures, 25). Published from  a series of lectures delivered at Berkeley in 1949 and praised by reviewers as “an event in modern Greek scholarship”.  From Chapter IV, ‘Dream-Pattern and Culture-Pattern’. 


‘In most of their descriptions of dreams, the Homeric poets treat what is seen as if it were “objective fact.” The dream usually takes the form of a visit paid to a sleeping man or woman by a single dream-figure (the very word oneiros in Homer nearly always means dream-figure, not dream-experience). This dream-figure can be a god, or a ghost, or a preexisting dream-messenger, or an “image” (eidolon) created specially for the occasion; but whichever it is, it exists objectively in space, and is independent of the dreamer. It effects an entry by the keyhole (Homeric bedrooms having neither window nor chimney); it plants itself at the head of the bed to deliver its message; and when that is done, it withdraws by the same route.


The dreamer, meanwhile, is almost completely passive: he sees a figure, he hears a voice, and that is practically all. Sometimes, it is true, he will answer in his sleep; once he stretches out his arms to embrace the dream figure. But these are objective physical acts, such as men are observed to perform in their sleep. The dreamer does not suppose himself to be anywhere else than in his bed, and in fact he knows him­ self to be asleep, since the dream-figure is at pains to point this out to him: “You are asleep, son of Atreus,” says the wicked dream in Iliad 2 ; You are asleep, Achilles,” says the ghost of Patroclus; “You are asleep, Penelope,” says the “shadowy image” in the Odyssey.


All this bears little resemblance to our own dream-experience, and scholars have been inclined to dismiss it, like so much else in Homer, as “poetic convention” or “epic machinery.” It is at any rate highly stylized, as the recurrent formulae show. I shall come back to this point presently. Meanwhile we may notice that the language used by Greeks at all periods in describing dreams of all sorts appears to be suggested by a type of dream in which the dreamer is the passive recipient of an objective vision. The Greeks never spoke as we do of having a dream, but always of seeing a dream. The phrase is appropriate only to dreams of the passive type, but we find it used even when the dreamer is himself the central figure in the dream action. Again, the dream is said not only to “visit” the dreamer  but also to “stand over” him. The latter usage is particularly common in Herodotus, where it has been taken for a reminiscence of Homer’s “it stood at his head‘, but its occurrence in the Epidaurian and Lindian Temple Records, and in countless later authors from Isocrates to the ‘Acts of the Apostles’, can hardly be explained in this manner.


It looks as if the objective, visionary dream had struck deep roots not only in literary tradition but in the popular imagination. And that conclusion is to some extent fortified by the occurrence in myth and pious legend of dreams which prove their objectivity by leaving a material token behind them, what our spiritualists like to call an “apport“; the best­ known example is Bellerophon’s incubation dream in Pindar, in which the apport is a golden bridle.


But let us return to Homer. The stylized, objective dreams I have been describing are not the only dreams with which the epic poets are acquainted. That the common anxiety-dream was as familiar to the author of the Iliad as it is to us, we learn from a famous simile: “as in a dream one flees and another can­ not pursue him-the one cannot stir to escape, nor the other to pursue him-so Achilles could not overtake Hector in running, nor Hector escape him.” The poet does not ascribe such nightmares to his heroes, but he knows well what they are like, and makes brilliant use of the experience to express frustration. Again, in Penelope’s dream of the eagle and the geese in Odyssey 19 we have a simple wish-fulfilment dream with symbolism and what Freud calls “condensation” and “displacement“: Penelope is crying over the murder of her beautiful geese when the eagle suddenly speaks with a human voice and ex­plains that he is Odysseus.


This is the only dream in Homer which is interpreted symbolically. Should we say that we have here the work of a late poet who has taken an intellectual leap from the primitiveness of Rose’s first stage to the sophistication of his third? I doubt it. On any reasonable theory of the composition of the Odyssey it is difficult to suppose that Book 19 is much later than Book 4, in which we meet a dream of the primitive “objective” type. Moreover, the practice of interpreting dreams symbolically was known to the author of the Iliad which is generally thought one of the oldest parts of the poem: we read there of an oneiropolos who failed to interpret his sons’ dreams when they went to the Trojan War.


Eric Robertson Dodds (26 July 1893 – 8 April 1979) was an Irish classical scholar. Among his works are ‘The Greeks and the Irrational‘ (1951), which charts the influence of irrational forces in Greek culture up to the time of Plato.


More about Eric Robertson Dodds:
Eric Robertson Dodds-‘Seeing A Dream’ In Homeric Poetry

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